Interview with Mr. Lino Guzzella, President, ETH Zurich

Interview with Mr. Lino Guzzella, President, ETH Zurich



Prisma Reports (PR): Switzerland is the world’s most innovative economy, according to a WIPO study, and has been holding the position for 8 years now – although interestingly, in the latest WEF ranking however, published October 17th, Switzerland has lost its top seat to the US. What is the Swiss recipe for such success, and what are the determinant factors to have helped the country maintain such positioning for the past 8 years?

Lino Guzella (LG): Switzerland has been such an innovative force thanks to its favorable political and regulatory environment. Switzerland has no industry policy – something that Swiss government is very proud of and that I think is a very good idea. Switzerland believes in competition, Switzerland believes in markets, and Switzerland believes in a bottom-up approach. The Swiss system is an agile and responsive system in the sense that people can react quickly and directly to market trends, changes in technology, and even societal changes. We have a highly favorable political framework. We have a stable situation and a cultural respect the rule of law. It seems simple, but if you look at what happens today in the world it cannot be taken for granted. A second key factor to Swiss innovation is its openness. For instance, the Swiss watch industry came from the Huguenots. The Huguenots fled France bringing watchmaking to Switzerland, establishing a tradition that has developed into a very successful Swiss industry. Switzerland has always had a tradition of welcoming people with excellent ideas and a lot of energy – this is one reason Switzerland attracts intellectual migrants.

Finally, one of the main reasons that Switzerland champions innovation is its lack of natural resources. We do not have oil reserves, we do not have gold or other precious mineral deposits, we do not have coal, we do not have access to the sea, and we are a small country with few natural advantages. Utilizing our brains and intellect is our only means for survival. This situation presents a paradox in terms of diplomacy. Nations with vast natural resources may develop poorly in terms of diplomacy, while nation’s poor in natural resources learn how to negotiate. In the long-term, I think diplomacy and the ability to negotiate are far more valuable skills than to have a lot of oil.

The Swiss were lucky during the Second World War. After the war, much of the industry in Europe was destroyed except for industry in Sweden and in Switzerland. Only the Swiss mechanical industry could deliver engines, turbines, textile manufacturing. This was a period of prosperity for the Swiss mechanical industry. Coincidence? Luck? I think it was Oprah Winfrey who said, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” You need to be prepared and you need to take the opportunity. Switzerland has done just that and very well, in the past, I hope it will do so in the future.


(PR): ETH Zurich is at the forefront of research and development in Switzerland. Your research focuses on society needs and spans across the fields of data, medicine, sustainability, manufacturing technologies, and critical thinking. How would you evaluate your contribution to Switzerland in terms of R&D? Can you give us some examples of the most remarkable innovation, spin-offs or ventures sourced in ETH?

(AS): Modern Switzerland was founded in 1848 and only 7 years later, in 1855, ETH Zurich was created. It was the only federal university; all of the others belong to Cantons, and it was created with the purpose of inspiring innovation in Switzerland. Our main contribution to the success of Switzerland is the education that we give to our students. This is our primary task. Our main vector through which we translate knowledge to society. We graduate around 2,500 students each year and they are educated to the highest level of what is available today worldwide in each the disciplines in which they graduate. ETH consults and cooperates with different industries and, of course, the university creates spin-off companies. The value of their IPOs, Mergers and Acquisitions has been roughly 3 billion in the past 20 years.

One of the best examples of the first generation of ETH spinoffs is, “U-blox.” U-blox is a company created by people at ETH Zurich that produces the world’s smallest and most inexpensive GPS receiver. The receivers are smaller than a fingernail. If you buy a hundred thousands of them, they cost you less than a dollar. Many of today’s mobile phones and navigation systems, etc. contain a U-blox receiver.

More recently, we have launched two interesting startups that have great potential. One is “GetYourGuide.” GetYourGuide is an innovative provider of holiday tours operating with local agencies all over the world. Another is “Beekeeper” – an award-winning digital workplace app that digitizes the non-desk workforce by connecting operational systems and communication channels in a secure and intuitive platform.

ETH Zurich has also contributed in a very substantial and traditional way to the success of Switzerland through our expertise. Our researchers have consulted banks, corporations, and in the last 20 years, or so, we have launched approximately 400 of our own spin-off companies.

(PR): You launched the ETH+ initiative at the end of 2017, with the aim to develop greater capacity, and open up new fields of knowledge at the intersections between disciplines. Can you tell us more about this program, its first results, and how the university invests in talents? What areas of study and research do you see as being most relevant for ETH in the future?

(AS): ETH+ is a recently launched and very exciting initiative. A very clever person once said, “Society has problems and universities have departments.” By having departments, I mean that you have very clearly defined disciplines mathematics, physics, mechanical engineering, and you need these disciplinary foundations to be productive. Otherwise, you are just a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. You need to have very deep roots in a discipline to be at the forefront of what is going on. However, compartmentalization makes it very difficult to communicate across departments and talk across disciplines. Exchanges among diverse fields encourages innovation and real breakthroughs. So, more crosstalk is needed between the disciplines. ETH+ essentially is oriented to bringing diverse academic disciplines and talents together.

The ETH Zurich board of directors decided a year ago that we needed to do something bold, so we decided to use the funds we had available to stimulate cross-disciplinary discussion. We announced a program where everyone in our community could propose ideas. Hundreds of ideas came up and in the end, 9 ideas emerged and we decided to fund them in a first round. The ideas ranged from security and privacy in the digital society to a platform for robotics to helping developing countries; and from engineering for developing countries to future learning initiatives and medical applications. Even very fundamental problems central to the foundation of data science where computer scientists and mathematicians and electrical engineers work together to come up with the new data signs for the next generation were considered. It is a very exciting initiative, with a very big resonance in the university. Within a year, I believe this has created a lot of energy and excitement, bringing people together who would not have talked together without this initiative. In this sense, I would say it is a big success. We already have plans for a second and third round.

(PR): In the 2019 edition of the QS World University Rankings ETH Zurich is ranked 11th in the world. The University counts over 20,000 students, including 4,000 doctoral students, from over 120 countries, and as of August 2018, ETH has produced 21 Nobel Prize winners, including Albert Einstein. What are the key fundamentals that explain such success and reputation? What’s unique about ETH?

(AS): We need a substantial and reasonable funding; this is one of the key factors. The Swiss government, the Swiss taxpayers had a lot of wisdom when they decided that they wanted to fund excellent universities publically. Our budget is roughly 1.9 billion Swiss francs; out of this budget, roughly 70% comes from the government. If you compare that to other publically funded universities, this is a generous scheme. There are other universities like in Singapore or in Germany that have similar deals, but there are many countries who have decided to go another way and to reduce public funding more and more even in public universities and this is not for the good of these universities.

Money is a necessary condition. Without adequate funding we could not function and produce research at such a high level. Yet it is not a sufficient condition, it is not a very intelligent condition, but without adequate funding you have little chance of becoming an excellent university. Aside from funding, we have two other ingredients that I believe to be very important. One ingredient is openness. ETH Zurich is very open-minded. We welcome new ideas, but we are also open to people, with the exception of undergraduate students (Swiss public universities are open to all Swiss students who achieve a Matura – equivalent of a high school diploma, so undergraduate places are most often filled with Swiss students with instruction taking place in German), some 40% of our students are non-Swiss. Everyone else in master’s programs, doctoral programs, and our body of faculty is highly international. Among ETH Zurich faculty members, more than 65% are non-Swiss. This means that ETH Zurich looks for talent all over the world and is open to talent. Being open for ideas, being open for innovation and change in itself is the second key factor.

The third factor is autonomy: The Minister of Education in Switzerland does not tell universities how and what they should research or how and what they should teach. We decide ourselves. Autonomy is something that you have to trickle down to those at the foundation. The board of directors does not dictate to the departments what they have to research. Instead, they allocate a certain amount of funding to professors, depending on their performance. The departments decide what to do with this funding and then the funding is reallocated to individual faculty members – women and men who are conducting cutting-edge research. It is they who determine how to spend the funding. So, funding, openness and autonomy. These are the three main ingredients for our success. Of course, it takes time. You cannot build a university overnight. It needs a bit of luck, but I think if you keep these three factors together then you can go a long way.

(PR): Tell us about ETH Zurich’s international exchange programs, alliances and networks. How are you working to maintain and develop ETH’s international collaboration and institutional partnership? In specific what does the US market and American universities represent for ETH?

(MW): We have a truly international network with 9,000 research contacts worldwide. You cannot be a top university with so many students and faculty members without being globally connected. There are two approaches to do that. One approach is to have an institutional connection, whereby universities decide to collaborate with other universities and they create their own branch campuses in other countries. We prefer a bottom up approach, whereby ETH faculty members establish informal exchanges with a specific faculty member at a university that he or she decides he/she wants to work with. We provide our faculty members with the means and the access to 9,000 worldwide contacts: universities, government agencies, and industries all over the world so they can choose their ideal partners. We do not have all the MOUs and signing ceremonies that other universities have, but we have a lot of concrete cooperation with other partners. One exception is the Singapore-ETH Center for Sustainability that we established in 2010 in close collaboration with Singapore’s National Research Foundation.

The success of Switzerland and the success of ETH Zurich is based on the ability to attract talent. Prof. Alessio Figalli, who won the 2018 Fields Medal for Mathematics, is one such example. He was raised in Italy, educated in France, and has been a faculty member at ETH Zurich for 4 years now. We were able to attract him because he finds here, an empowering environment. We want to attract talent from all over. Switzerland is demographically too small to provide sufficient talent to sustain the economy, so we gather it from all over the world. On September 12, 2019, ETH will host the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit and the theme will be on nurturing talent.

(PR): What is your strategy to attract international students and talents?

(AS): Our professors come from all over the world and are the biggest advocates for the university. For example, Raffaello D’Andrea, an engineer and professor in ETH Zurich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control is one of our global leaders in drone technologies. He is a fantastic speaker. His TED talks have attracted more than 10 million views.

We also participate in road shows: ETH Zurich exhibits at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, for instance, where we meet with university leaders, with political leaders and Forum participants. Around 20 years ago, ETH was much more conservative in this respect, but we have learned that we not only need to do great work, but that we also need to communicate it to the world and offer faculty and researchers the best conditions in which to develop their talents. In terms of salaries, we cannot compete with the most advanced corporations, such as Google or Facebook, for instance.

However, our unique selling proposition is that we endow our faculty members and students with their own resources, so that they can autonomously decide what to research. Faculty members receive a lump sum of funding that they do not have to ask for each year. Instead of spending 80% of their time writing grant proposals to fund research, we want to have it the other way around – 20% of their time they write proposals, but 80% of their time they focus on and conduct research. We believe in our professors; we give them trust and time. We give them resources so that they can really pursue their crazy ideas. Moreover, maybe they are crazy, but maybe they will also change the world as Albert Einstein did some 100 years ago. We want more Albert Einstein’s and less run-of-the-mill research.

(PR): Another major determinant factor for universities is their level of engagement with the private sector and corporate world. How is the ETH working on strengthening its relations with private sector, with not only Swiss but also global industries and corporations, while also preserving its independence from them?

(AS): There is always a potential for conflict of interest when you cooperate, whether is with industries, government, or with other universities. In order to avoid conflicts of interest, you need to be transparent with the public and with your potential donors, you need to have clear governance rules and you need to enforce them. You need some accounting and some controlling mechanisms. At ETH Zurich, we work through Partnership Councils where we invite all interested industry, big players as well as small and medium sized enterprises. We have some half a dozen Partnership Councils on energy, on security, on mobility, etc. We regularly invite the Partnership Councils to ETH where we present our latest research results and together we discuss developments to foster a privileged relationship. We provide a lot of information to the industry, and we learn a lot from them as well, so it is really a mutual and bilateral progress mechanism. The flow of information creates inspiration. It is a networking opportunity, as well, in which we identify specific projects that can be dealt with bilaterally. Companies can then decide to leave the Partnership Council and form a joint venture with ETH to pursue a project separately. This process enables protection of intellectual property. The Partnership Council is an open platform focused on inspiration.

Aside from the Partnership Councils, we also host an annual ‘Industry Day’, which is open to everyone. On Industry day, our faculty members give short presentations about the latest ideas and developments, and then if someone in the audience is interested they have the chance to together bilaterally. We also have a Tech Transfer and Industry Relations office that deals with IP issues, supports the creation of spin-off companies and helps our researchers in cooperating with industry Generally speaking, we rely more on bilateral relations to approach companies. For many years, I was a faculty member and worked very intensively with the German car industry; and it is clear I was working with those companies because I had something to offer to them. My lab, my group, developed theories and developed ideas that were unique at that time; then we published our ideas industry leaders approached us and we developed a program with them. That is the second approach that we do more in an international way. In my experience, if you really are the forerunner, the biggest companies will notice you and they will come to you for support.

(PR): What are today some of your most important collaboration with American corporations?

(AS): We work closely with Microsoft, IBM Research Zurich, Disney Research, Google….You name a company and there is a high chance that we work with them. In the US, we have connections with over 1,400 universities, 170 research institutes, 20 non-governmental companies, 52 public authorities, and 133 industries in our database.

(PR): On 17 May 2018, you announced that he would not be seeking a second term as ETH President. Priorities for the rest of your term and what you would like to leave behind as legacy?

(AS): The most important thing that a President at ETH Zurich does is hire new faculty members. While this role often has no immediate effect, in the long-term development, it is the most important aspect of my role. I have hired some 100 people and I tell you they are fantastic. Just to give you an example, four years ago I hired Professor Alessio Figalli, who recently won the Fields Medal for Mathematics – a prize equivalent in prestige to a Nobel Prize. I am sure that there will be many more successes down the line. My biggest contribution to this university is having contributed to attracting and hiring some of the brightest people in the world. Many of them are young people, around 35 years old, but in 10 years down the road, these people will shake the scientific or technological foundations of the world.

We also redefined the university’s strategy in my term as president, emphasizing two additional fields to complement traditional fields of research: data science and medical science. ETH Zurich needs medicine, and medicine needs ETH. Medical science is the biggest opportunity area to support a scientific, economic, and societal base. We do not understand life well-enough, and life is one of the biggest frontiers yet to be discovered. ETH Zurich needed to be more involved in medicine, and for the first time ever in the 163 years of history of this University we have managed to create a medical school program. We now have a bachelor in medical sciences. In our program, we changed the conventional approach one in which a patient describes the symptoms and medicine looks for a solution. Instead, we have implemented a bottom up approach, from the molecular or chemical foundations of medicine using a quantitative approach and mathematics. We have introduced the “mathematization of medicine” which will be one of the big ideas of the future. It is already globally recognized as one of the most interesting experiments in medical research. We have had excellent success, so far, and people come from all over the world to consider it. ETH+ is another of the projects that I am very proud of, of course.

(PR): How would you convince a young, eager university graduate with bold ideas and entrepreneurial ambitions to come and conduct research and establish in Switzerland?

(AS): I am fundamentally convinced that humanity needs much more basic science and much more engineering. We have problems ahead that are solvable, but they are big and require more knowledge that is scientific. We need more engineers to tackle these problems. Climate change, population growth, resource scarcity, human poverty – all of these big issues need to be addressed and I am convinced that science and technology is necessary to tackle these problems.

I am also convinced that science and technology is not sufficient to tackle these problems. Unfortunately, there is still a divide between natural science engineering and humanities/social science. I believe that ETH Zurich, as a world university, must bridge this gap. In that regard, the biggest individual idea that we brought to the forefront is the Critical Thinking Initiative – fundamental to success. We need to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers at the highest possible levels in science, engineering, and technology. Nevertheless, that is not enough. They also need to be both critical and creative thinkers. Being a good engineer is much more than knowing the foundations of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering.

We have created many ideas at ETH Zurich with which to foster transdisciplinary components that are important for educating the leaders of the future. Only leaders with a strong foundation in the fundamental sciences, a willingness to cooperate with expertise in diverse disciplines with an entrepreneurial spirit and discernment can tackle these big problems. That is how I would like to be remembered.

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